George Hogben was born in Islington, Middlesex, England, on 14 July 1853, the first child of George Hogben, a commercial clerk and later a Congregational minister, and his wife, Mary Bennett McLachlan. He was educated at the Congregational School for the Sons of Ministers (later Caterham School) at Lewisham and at University School, Nottingham, gaining scholarships which allowed him to enter St Catharine's College at the University of Cambridge, where he graduated BA in 1877 and MA in 1881. He took a position as chief mathematics and science master at Aldenham School in Elstree, Hertfordshire, in 1877, but late in 1880 successfully applied for the post of second master at the newly established Christchurch Boys' High School in New Zealand.
Hogben arrived in Lyttelton in March 1881 on the steamer Norfolk, and for the next six years taught at the high school. Early photographs show him as being well built, of medium height, with dark intense eyes and a dark bushy beard and moustache. On 24 August 1885 at Christchurch, George Hogben married Emily Frances Dobson, the youngest daughter of Edward Dobson, the former Canterbury provincial engineer; they were to have six children. In January 1887 he transferred to the service of the North Canterbury Education Board as inspector of schools.
A Congregationalist like his father, Hogben was a deeply religious man. He was a firm believer in progress and held advanced social views; but while deprecating the claims of birth and wealth he thought that change had to come from above, and saw the educated classes, able and wise men, as the ideal rulers of society.
Hogben played a leading role in the New Zealand Educational Institute – the teachers' professional organisation – and the causes he advocated in the 1880s foreshadowed the progressive reforms he was able to promote in later years: free tuition for deserving pupils from kindergarten to university, less attention to examinations and more to education, systematic moral and technical instruction, better teacher training and a national salary scale for teachers, and centralisation of the inspectorate under Department of Education control. In 1888 his own post of inspector was threatened by expenditure cuts, but in May 1889 Hogben gained appointment as rector of Timaru High School.
Hogben remained in Timaru for the next 10 years. As head of a small coeducational secondary school he was able to implement some of his advanced ideas. He introduced what he called the 'natural' method of teaching, based on practical rather than bookish instruction, and he widened the curriculum to include shorthand, bookkeeping, needlework and carpentry, to supplement the traditional academic subjects required for success in the university matriculation examination. He also persuaded the Timaru High School board to offer free places to bright youngsters. When the original institution was split into Timaru Boys' and Timaru Girls' high schools in 1898, Hogben became headmaster of the former.
While in Timaru Hogben wrote a French textbook, Méthode naturelle pour apprendre le français, which was published in London in 1899, but his main interest became the study of earthquakes. He read his first seismological paper to the Philosophical Institute of Canterbury in August 1890, and he soon became an acknowledged expert in this field. In 1898 the government agreed to place a seismograph in his charge in Timaru, but Hogben was now anxious to move on. He applied unsuccessfully for the chair of mathematics at the new Victoria College in Wellington, but early in 1899 the sudden death of the Reverend William Habens created a vacancy in the post of inspector general of schools and secretary for education. Richard Seddon offered the job to Hogben who eagerly accepted. On 1 April 1899 he took charge of the Department of Education in Wellington.
One of Hogben's first acts in his new position was to issue new regulations for the inspection and examination of schools, which gave head teachers greater freedom in the classification of their pupils. He followed this up, in 1900, with the Manual and Technical Instruction Act, which offered grants for the establishment of technical classes. One of his major concerns was to gain the support of the teaching profession by convening a conference of inspectors in 1901, to which he invited representatives of the New Zealand Educational Institute. After inquiries by a royal commission he was able to gain the passage of the Public-School Teachers' Salaries Act 1901, which raised national scales to the level of the best education board rates. He followed this up with the Teachers' Superannuation Bill, introduced in 1902, but it took another three years before Parliament approved a national pension scheme for teachers.
Although concerned to raise the material well-being of teachers, Hogben also expected them to work harder and more effectively. In 1904 he convened another education conference where he gained approval for a thoroughly revised primary school syllabus, which was to become a landmark in the history of New Zealand education. It stressed practical teaching at the expense of grammar and arithmetic, made health instruction and physical and moral teaching mandatory, and sought to make teachers true educators rather than 'informationists'. However, Hogben overestimated the abilities of mostly poorly trained teachers, many of whom found their new freedom bewildering. His remedy, in regulations issued in 1905, was gradually to replace the outdated pupil-teacher training system with a qualification gained from a training college in one of the four main centres.
In a few years Hogben completely reshaped the primary school system, bringing it under the firm control of the Department of Education. His other main target was secondary schooling. The department promoted district high schools to bring post-primary education within reach of country children. The urban high schools, however, although established with the aid of public funds, in many places had become a preserve for the children of the well-to-do. The expansion of commerce and of state services had created numerous white-collar jobs and there was a growing demand for access to secondary education by the less well off who sought equal opportunity for their children.
Hogben responded by offering special grants for pupils admitted free of charge. Most boards accepted these grants but some of the largest and most important schools refused. Seddon, who took personal charge of the education portfolio in 1903, was fully aware of the political implications of free secondary education, and that year he steered through Parliament a Secondary Schools Act designed to force the exclusive schools to open their doors. It took several years before all resistance was overcome, but the influx of new pupils exceeded all expectations. The achievement of free secondary education was the other major landmark of Hogben's period of office.
Hogben was also concerned with reducing the academic bias of secondary teaching and promoting practical instruction relevant to the pupils' environment. In this he was only partly successful, because parents demanded courses leading to office work rather than the manual and agricultural subjects Hogben advocated. Even the district and technical high schools promoted by the department were forced by parent pressure to develop academic courses which copied the established secondary schools.
In 1904 Hogben suffered a breakdown caused by overwork. The government agreed to ease his administrative burden and in 1907 it granted him 10 months' leave for a study tour of Europe and North America. The years which followed were largely a period of consolidation. The department added staff for the medical inspection of schools and for instruction in physical education. It provided bursaries for access to university, and Hogben, as a member of the senate of the University of New Zealand from 1903 to 1914, promoted the teaching of home science to graduate level and greater freedom for academic staff. The Education Act 1914 at last placed the inspectorate under full departmental control, but the precarious majority of the Reform government and the outbreak of war meant that other reforms desired by Hogben were not introduced: what should have been the culmination of Hogben's long reign fell short of his expectations.
Hogben was made a CMG in the New Year honours in 1915 and was appointed New Zealand's first director of education under the new act from 1 January 1915. Three months later he retired from the government service. He continued his scientific work on earthquakes, which had already earned him a fellowship of the Geological Society of London in 1910. He also supported the foundation of the Workers' Educational Association in 1915; wrote a report on the organisation of scientific and industrial research which foreshadowed the establishment of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research; and took an interest in electoral reform, acting as returning officer in the first municipal election based on proportional representation, in Christchurch in 1917. In November 1919 he was elected one of 20 original fellows of the New Zealand Institute (later the Royal Society of New Zealand). Soon afterwards, on 26 April 1920, he died at his Wellington home; he was survived by his wife and two sons.
During his 16 years as head of the Department of Education Hogben was able to transform the country's school system in line with the best educational thought of his time. Many of his reforms aroused great resistance, particularly from traditionalists and the defenders of privilege. He was denounced as a 'faddist' and autocrat, determined to impose new-fangled ideas, but he was able to gain the overwhelming support of the teaching profession in changing the spirit and ideals of New Zealand education. His basic belief, which underlay all the changes he promoted, was that a teacher's task was not to pump information into children but to help them in developing their own talents for learning, thinking and doing.